Schools vs. play

“When we see that children everywhere are required by law to go to school, that almost all schools are structured in the same way, and that our society goes to a great deal of trouble and expense to provide such schools, we tend naturally to assume that there must be some good, logical reason for all this, writes Peter Gray in A Brief History of Education in Psychology Today. There isn’t, he argues.

Gray is the author of Free to Learn, which is subtitled “why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant and better students.”

The teacher says, “you must do your work and then you can play.” Clearly, according to this message, work, which encompasses all of school learning, is something that one does not want to do but must; and play, which is everything that one wants to do, has relatively little value.

“Children whose drive to play is so strong that they can’t sit still for lessons are no longer beaten,” he writes. “Instead, they are medicated.”

Structured play makes recess ‘safe’

Children play at Concord Elementary in Edina, Minnesota.

A “recess consultant” will design “structured” play at two Edina, Minnesota elementary schools, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Playworks promises to teach children to replace “Hey, you’re out!” with “good job” or “nice try.”

The two schools have joined a growing number of districts that have hired consultants to remake the playground experience into more structured and inclusive play time. The games and activities, like four square and jumping rope, are overseen by adults and designed to reduce disciplinary problems while ensuring that no children are left out.

Parents and students have complained about the new, structured recess.

Caroline Correia’s fourth-grade son, Liam, doesn’t like the limited choice of games.  “He feels like that’s not playing anymore,” she said.

Roughhousing is “essential to childhood development,” writes Virginia Postrel in response to a ban on tag that was imposed — and then rescinded –– in Mercer Island, Washington.

Rowdy, physical play teaches kids to communicate verbally and nonverbally; to take turns; to negotiate rules; and to understand when they can use their full strength and when they need to hold back.

“Maybe we should think twice about making recess as joyless and authoritarian as the rest of the school day,” writes Robby Soave on Reason‘s Hit & Run.

Structured playtime may contribute to the campus safe-space movement, he suggests. “Is it any surprise that teens who have never enjoyed anything approaching actual freedom — who spent their purported free time being coached by paid consultants on the ‘right way’ to play with others — cringe in horror when they arrive at college and are finally on their own?”

‘Proficient’ doesn’t always mean proficient

Lyndazia Ruffin, a fifth grader, last month at West Broad Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio. Photo:Andrew Spear, New York Times

A test score that’s marked “proficient” in Ohio may be “approached expectations” in Illinois, reports Motoko Rich in the New York Times.

Two-thirds of Ohio students at most grade levels were proficient on Core-aligned reading and math tests designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, said state officials. education-test

But “similar scores on the same tests meant something quite different in Illinois, where education officials said only about a third of students were on track.”

In California and North Carolina, state officials combined students who passed with those who “nearly passed.”  Florida’s education commissioner “recommended passing rates less stringent than in other states,” reports Rich.

Before the Common Core, each state set its own standards and devised its own tests. Some states made the standardized tests so easy or set passing scores so low that virtually all students were rated proficient even as they scored much lower on federal exams and showed up for college requiring remedial help.

Setting common standards and using common tests was supposed to end all that. It hasn’t.

“That mentality of saying let’s set proficient at a level where not too many people fail is going to kill us,” said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit think tank. “The global standard of what proficient is keeps moving up.”

Ohio will scrap the Parcc exam and hire a developer to come up with another set of tests, writes Rich. “Three other states similarly scrapped the Parcc test after administering it this year, creating an increasingly atomized landscape across the country.”

8% more students, 84% more staff

Since 1970, schools increased staff by 84 percent, while enrollment went up by 8 percent, notes Matthew Ladner on Jay Greene’s blog. That’s a 60 percent increase in teachers and a 138 percent increase in non-teaching staff.

Are kids “learning so much surrounded by so many adults compared to the past?” Ladner asks. Here are NAEP scores for the same period.

Pre-K fails in Tennessee

The benefits of Tennessee’s pre-K program for at-risk children disappeared by the end of kindergarten, concludes the TN-VPK Effectiveness Study. By the end of second grade, children who attended TN-VPK did worse on many achievement measures compared to the control group, Vanderbilt researchers found. The pre-K group did no better on non-academic measures.

All the children came from low-income families. The control group was made up of children whose parents applied for pre-K but didn’t get a slot.


Many of the pre-K grads and the controls attended low-performing schools. Most fell behind in reading and math in the early grades, the study found.

Tennessee rolled out pre-K quickly, said Dale Farran, co-principal investigator. Quality varies. “What might you get from the same pre-K program if you had a common vision and could push the quality up?”

On paper — if not in reality –TN-VPK is a high-quality program, writes Abbie Lieberman on EdCentral.

TN-VPK meets nine out of 10 of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) quality benchmarks. The state requires teachers to have a bachelor’s degree with specialized training in pre-K, classes are small and have low student-teacher ratios, and the state has comprehensive early learning standards in place.

However, Tennessee spends only $5,895 per pre-K student. Oklahoma’s pre-K program, which spends $7,8678, “has been shown to have a positive impact on student achievement.”

Effective preschool programs don’t come cheap,  writes David Kirp, a professor of public policy at Berkeley, in the New York Times.

Consider what’s happening in Boston. A randomized study showed that prekindergartners there gained between four and seven months’ progress in reading and math, and those gains persisted: 27 percent more of Boston’s preschool children scored “proficient” or better on the state’s rigorous third-grade exams.

Boston spends $10,000 for each preschooler, according to Kirp. “You get what you pay for,” he concludes.

The kind of early childhood education that changes disadvantaged children’s learning trajectories is intensive and expensive. We might be able to afford it for the neediest kids, the ones who are not developing language skills and a base of knowledge at home. But, if it’s not going to be done well, why do it at all?

Universal pre-k may widen achievement gap

“Universal” pre-k could widen New York City’s achievement gap, writes Robert Pondiscio.

Mayor Bill de Blasio visited a prekindergarten class at Public School 130 in Lower Manhattan

Mayor Bill de Blasio visited a prekindergarten class at Public School 130 in Lower Manhattan

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $300 million program to provide free, full-time pre-K to all children is not reaching the neediest children, reports Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor of education and public policy.

Mayor de Blasio’s pre-K program added only 195 kids from the bottom 20 percent of ZIP codes this fall, according to Fuller’s data. “Middle-income neighborhoods are showing the greatest gains in registration, while enrollments have actually fallen in nineteen of the city’s thirty-four poorest zip codes,” notes Pondiscio.

“We just don’t have the evidence to back why we would heavily finance pre-K in middle class and upper class communities,” Fuller told ProPublica. Children from low-income families need early education the most, he wrote earlier, but the city’s program advantages well-off communities.

38% of new grads: College was worth the cost

Half of college graduates — 38 percent of recent graduates — strongly believe their college education was worth the cost, according to the Gallup-Purdue Index.

Alumni of for-profit colleges were the most dissatisfied: Only 26 percent strongly agreed their postsecondary education was worth the cost.


Earnings of former for-profit college enrollees (not necessarily graduates) show wide variability, notes Clive Belfield’s analysis of College Scoreboard data. Top for-profit students earn more than the average four-year student, but low-percentile students earn much less.

The boxes show the middle 50 percent of colleges; the “whiskers” show the 10th and 90th percentiles.

There’s less variability for students who enrolled in community colleges, he writes. “Median earnings at community colleges are significantly below those of four-year colleges, but the top 25 percent of community colleges have median earnings that exceed the average four-year public college.”

Where will Malia go to college?

President Obama has told his 17-year-old daughter, Malia, “not to stress too much about having to get into one particular college,” he said last month. “Just because it’s not some name-brand, famous, fancy school doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get a great education there.”

Malia Obama wore a Stanford T-shirt last summer while biking with her father at Martha's Vineyard. Photo:  Nicholas Kamm, AFP

First Daughter Malia Obama wore a Stanford T-shirt while biking with her father at Martha’s Vineyard last summer. Photo: Nicholas Kamm, AFP

Malia Obama, a senior at the elite Sidwell Friends School, may be “the nation’s most eligible 2016 college applicant,” notes the New York Times.

So far, she’s “toured six of the eight Ivies — Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale — as well as Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. She has also visited New York University, Tufts, Barnard and Wesleyan.”

They’re all “name-brand, famous, fancy” schools. But she doesn’t really need a safety school.

Why I’ve stopped doing interviews for Yale

Ben Orlin at “Math With Bad Drawings” explains — with bad drawings — why he’s stopped doing alumni interviews with Yale applicants.

“In the last 15 to 20 years, Yale’s applicant pool has gone from ‘hypercompetitive’ to ‘a Darwinian dystopia so cutthroat you’d feel guilty even simulating it on a computer, just in case the simulations had emotions’,” writes Orlin.

The Common App’s demands are endless: “Write me a confessional essay. Document your leisure activities in meticulous detail. Muse on a philosophical question. Tell me what you love about my school. Give me testimonials from your teachers.”

Yale is either “peering into your very soul” or “gathering the data to build your robot doppelgänger,” he writes.

After all that, 94 percent of applicants are rejected, writes Orlin. “We’ve got a random process, disguised as a deliberative one.”

Psychologist Barry Schwartz proposes college admissions by lottery. “Every selective school should establish criteria [for admission],” writes Schwartz. “Then, the names of all applicants who meet these criteria would be put into a hat and the winners would be drawn at random.”

Orlin calls it “so crazy it’s gotta be right.”

Wouldn’t it work just as well — with a lot less angst?

Longer year boosts learning, widens gaps

Extending the school year would improve learning significantly — and widen achievement gaps, writes Seth Gershenson on Brookings’ Chalkboard.

That’s because high achievers benefit more than low achievers from additional learning time. His research is discussed in this IZA paper.

For kindergarteners in the 10th percentile of achievement, the effect of a 250-day school year is  about 0.75 of a standard deviation in math, while the average effect is 1.75 SD for those in the 90th percentile, he writes. Results are similar for reading.

This raises an intriguing question. Is equality (or less inequality) more important than boosting the performance of low achievers?